It is no news flash that ballet class is at high risk of falling into a rut. We speak about creating a structure that develops discipline and focus, but we all know that very structure can be the demise of inspiration should it fall prey to staleness.
It is, like most things, the teacher’s job to ensure that does not happen. We must keep class alive and new—even though it is basically the same every single time.
Many tactics can be implemented to maintain a sense of freshness from using new music to incorporating games. The one method I consider of highest value is quite simple: I don’t let myself get stale. Students take cues from their teachers. If I feel the rut in my teaching they inevitably will feel in it my class.
About a decade ago, I decided to do a little experiment. I committed to observing at which points throughout the dance season I felt myself becoming bored and disengaged. I kept these notes in a small calendar. I also made note of when the students showed similar signs. Not shockingly, the two lined up nearly every single time. And it was pretty much the same across all levels and age groups.
The experiment also demonstrated something I didn’t really need to be told, as I already knew it, but seeing it on paper help solidify it for me: The times class (students and myself) is most vulnerable to staleness are . . .
- About every 8-10 weeks.
- The week or so leading up to a break.
- The entire month before the end of the year performance.
Now, I have no idea if this is the same for other teachers. The few I have spoken to have mentioned it seems about right for them, but no doubt it varies a bit from teacher to teacher. However, the point is clear: We all have the capacity to become bored. Even with ballet (it hurts to admit, I know).
I made a choice to proactively stave off that dreaded rut using this information I had gathered. It took some planning, but I was pleased with the results. I have continued refining the plan year after year and now it has become a normal part of my yearly planning before classes begin each fall.
I call it my “Rut Killing War Plan” (because I like to amuse myself).
Rut Killing War Plan
STEP 1: Divide and Conquer!
Know how many weeks the class is running. Divide that amount into quarters. I teach at several schools, so my dance year ranges from quarters with 8 weeks to quarters with 10 weeks. But it is pretty consistent with me—no matter how long the year is, the students and I are becoming rather ho-hum as a quarter is coming to a close.
STEP 2: Target for Victory!
You have to know where victory lives and what it means in order to aim for and achieve it. Victory for each class is usually different. Maybe, for your 3 year olds, one piece of victory would be all the little dancers having improved at following directions. For your advanced dancers, it might include a better understanding of fouetté turns. The goal here is to find the pieces that make up victory for each class, write those things down, and plan your year accordingly. The students might not even be aware of your goals for them (mine usually aren’t), but they will feel a sense of pushing towards an end goal as a group because you are at the helm leading them to that goal. This keeps excitement streaming through class.
STEP 3: Sabotage the Enemy!
Rut is the enemy. We must destroy it. The issue is, in my experience, by the time you notice this enemy has infiltrated your class, it is too late. We must not sit back and wait for this rut to breathe its poison on us. We must demolish it at its source. The source is found within ourselves. There is no way to ALWAYS feel inspired; to ALWAYS feel motivated; to NEVER want to just “not want to go to ballet today.” We are humans, as are our students, and we will have times when we just don’t wanna. Acknowledging this, accepting this, and expressing this to our students helps take the power away from this wretched rut. We sabotage our enemy by being honest with ourselves and admitting to our humanity. By doing so, we learn how to use our weakness as a strength and become far more effective in our craft.
STEP 4: Pick Up Your Weapons!
You can’t fight “The Rut War” if you don’t have practical weapons in place. No amount of trying is going to get you and your class to victory if you don’t have the needed tools. Being practical comes into play here:
- At the middle of each quarter, I will throw something entirely new into class. Whether that is a brand new prop for my littles or a brand new concept for my older students.
- As each quarter is coming to a close I will devote some class time to discuss the progress the class has made. For younger students, this might mean sitting in a small circle and chatting about all the cool things they have learned. For older students, it might be a discussion at the barre about where their battu was 8 weeks ago, where it now is, and where we see it being over the next few weeks.
- When a break is arriving, I will use this time to help us all learn the skill of pushing through, of demanding more of ourselves, and not settling into mediocrity. As efforts are being seen in this regard, I reward the class with something. For young students the reward will likely be obvious, such as, everyone gets TWO stickers. For older students the reward is typically felt more than it is seen. Such as a compliment or a word of encouragement when it is least expected.
- When the end of the year is arriving and everyone is ready to perform and experience that unmatched thrill I will mix things up. For younger levels, this might mean tossing out almost the entirety of ballet class structure and allowing them to fully embrace their “play mode” with guided games and fun dances. For the higher levels, it could mean changing the pace of class, giving freer combinations, or adding in fun challenges (ex: do the waltz sorrowfully).
I DO plan for this before the year even begins. I consider my classes and decide what types of tools are best suited for them. I look at the calendar and I make an informed guess of when these tools will need to be put into play. This way I am not caught off guard.
Of course, I am a firm believer that plans rarely go according to plan. While I do plan my year, I also don’t marry my plan. It is there more as a compass to keep me on track; to help me get back on course should I stray. However, I do plan this particular aspect of my year with strategy because, for me, it feels important enough to do so.
That most dreaded rut is something to be reckoned with. It can feel like a war. If we arm ourselves wisely and develop a plan of attack, we will be able to protect ourselves and our students from becoming its next victims. We can take the victory!